Thursday, May 23, 2024

FREELANCERS ARE HERE, AND WHERE IS THE PROMISED LAW?

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It was necessary for freelancers to take to the streets in 2020 in order to completely expose the anachronism of the Law on Personal Income Tax and the inequalities it produces. Today, it is quite certain that there is enough knowledge and enough interlocutors – from freelancers themselves to research institutions, tax experts and unions ready to enter into dialogue, not only on the disputed law, but also on the issue of regulating non-standard forms of work as a whole. However, the Government of Serbia, which announced that the Law on Flexible Work will enter into force in 2022, is still not announced.
Professor Martin Risak, one of the biggest authorities in the field of regulating the position of workers on digital platforms, recently joked about that topic. He added that many European governments – unwilling to tackle the regulation of new, non-standard forms of work that have emerged with the spread of the Internet and the globalization of the labor market – have first claimed that there appear to be more researchers writing about platform work rather than the platform workers themselves. Now, when many of them welcomed this phenomenon unprepared – they show a huge appetite for data, although, truth be told, not for a quick search for a solution.
The Serbian case is so different that it is clear from the very beginning that there are many more freelancers in Serbia than researchers. For years, there have been so many of them to keep Serbia in the top ten countries globally, and in Europe in terms of the number of workers on online platforms per capita – as evidenced by continuous world and domestic research.
There is more and more data on freelancers – in July 2021, another survey conducted by the Association of Internet Workers (URI) was added to previous research, but it is unclear whether the Serbian government reads and thinks about them.
This new research, as well as the previous one, indicates that this institutionally vague and tax-unequal position of freelancers is harmful both for the workers and their families, and for Serbia as a country, which is facing more and more challenges in retaining quality labor.
In the text below, we will summarize the results of the URI survey and compare them with previous research.
The research entitled “Who are the workers on the Internet, what do they do and what do they need?”, Conducted by URI in the period from June 25 to July 10, is the most massive survey of workers on online platforms in Serbia so far. At the time of publishing the results, it included 798 people, according to 480 respondents in the NALED survey and 228 respondents in the first survey of this phenomenon in Serbia conducted in 2018 by the Center for Public Policy Research, still the only research organization that continuously investigates this phenomenon.
All these surveys were aimed at researching the demographic characteristics and socio-economic status of workers on the Internet, types and forms of their employment and income, needs and expectations regarding the future legal framework and tax approach in taxing this form of work. The Center’s research also covered other issues from the dimension of decent work, including trade union organization and action.
All surveys had a suitable sample, i.e. they relied on the answers of the respondents who wanted to answer the questionnaire shared on social networks or within the informal communities of freelancers.
Research to date has generally indicated that men are much more likely to opt for freelance than women. In contrast, the URI survey talks about gender balance. In the appropriate URI sample, 49.2% were women and 50.8% were men. This is due to the fact that in the URI sample there are more respondents from language platforms dominated by women, while the previous research mainly included workers working on global general platforms dominated by men.
The surveys used different approaches in classifying the average age of workers on online platforms. Thus, the Center’s survey shows that the average freelancer is between 25 and 29 years old, the NALED research suggests that the average freelancer is a man between 20 and 40 years old, while the URI research states that half of freelancers are in the 26 to 35 age group.
All research shows that freelancers, regardless of gender, are usually highly educated individuals and that most have a bachelor’s degree or above (80%), as well as that the number of freelancers with secondary education is also significant and, depending on surveys, ranges between one-fifth and one-third of workers.
All surveys, as well as research with a different methodological approach, show that the number of freelancers is growing, for whom working on platforms is the main source of income “from which they live, pay bills and current obligations and support their families, usually parents and then children.” In the URI survey, 77.7% of respondents said that this type of activity is their only source of income. In the NALED survey, this percentage is slightly higher (80%), while the first survey of the Center showed that, especially among women, in 2018 there was a significant number of respondents for whom this was an additional job with some other income from work.
From the first research until today, no change in the motivation to engage in freelancing has been noticed. Three answers dominate: the impossibility of finding a job in domestic companies, flexibility in work, as well as the possibility of higher earnings than in standard jobs in Serbia.
Freelancers mostly work for foreign employers who are not registered in Serbia and very often for only one dominant client. URI research confirms the already observed characteristics of this work, when it comes to the existence and type of contract that freelancers enter into with employers. In the URI survey, 94% of freelancers stated that they do not enter into any contract or that the contract has no significance in the legal system of Serbia, ie that it does not provide any guarantees that the employer will abide by what is concluded in the contract. In earlier surveys, that percentage was lower because they focused on a sample of respondents, mostly those coming from general platforms.
Consequently, all the above surveys show that the vast majority of freelancers do not exercise a large number of employment rights, primarily the right to pension and disability insurance.
At first glance, freelancers earn relatively well – in a URI survey, just over 2/3 said they earn up to €1,000, and the average freelancer’s salary is around €700. When expenses are deducted, the net average salary of a freelancer drops to around 560 euros. Slightly less than half of the respondents earn that income unevenly, while a quarter did not stabilize their income at all.
This dynamics of income generation is closely related to the regulation of one’s own position in the conditions of the already mentioned anachronistic solutions. In the URI survey, 83% of freelancers answered that they did not regulate their activity at all, ie they work exclusively as natural persons, while 15% were registered as entrepreneurs.
All research – even the most recent one – points to the heterogeneous nature of platform engagement and the need to propose more solutions that will accommodate these differences. Freelancers themselves stated in the URI survey (97%) that it is necessary to introduce a new legal-tax category that would refer exclusively to workers on the Internet.
The experience of European countries shows that legislators have chosen very different solutions, from partially accommodating existing regulations to (in rare cases) having elaborate legal solutions that are adapted to both freelancers on digital platforms and those working through mobile applications for food delivery and passenger transport.
Several proposals have appeared in the domestic professional public that respect the heterogeneous structure of freelancers and offer proposals – both for changes in the law on personal income tax and for a complete solution to the employment status of freelancers. Some of these solutions are in the following texts:

  • Mario Reljanović: Budućnost frilensera
  • Centar za istraživanje javnih politika: Predvodnici promena na tržištu rada: prototipovi dostojanstvenog rada za Srbiju u digitalnom dobu
  • Martin Risak: Platform work

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